On Monday June 27, just three days after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization extinguished the constitutional right to abortion, a doctor in Ohio came face to face with the harsh reality of the new legal regime. He had a 10-year-old patient who was six weeks and three days pregnant. Under Ohio law, there can be no abortions after six weeks. The doctor scrambled to find a colleague in neighboring Indiana, where laws are only slightly less restrictive, who could help the patient.
Heartbreaking cases like this will now be an everyday reality in the United States. Libby Emmons, editor in chief of the right-wing website The Post Millennial, was quick to place blame for the horrifying situation: Apparently, the pro-choice movement was the real culprit. Linking to the story, Emmons tweeted, “If only the pro-choice movement had focused on upholding ‘safe, legal and rare’ instead of advocating for abortion on demand and ‘shout your abortion’ there would have been enough mercy so that a 10 year old didn’t have to carry a rapist’s baby to term.”
At first glance, Emmons’s argument seems strange: How could the pro-choice movement be responsible for Ohio’s particularly harsh and inhumane anti-abortion law? It’s easy to dismiss her reasoning as just bad-faith deflection. But there’s something more at work: Blaming those who resist patriarchy for bad outcomes is a classic tactic of abusers to control their victims. “Don’t make me hit you,” is what an abuser says to exercise control. More and more, this victim blaming is also what we hear from the political right.
With a Supreme Court dominated by six Republican appointees, ranging politically from the reactionary Clarence Thomas to staunch corporate satraps like John Roberts, the right has an unprecedented stranglehold on power. It is using this dominance of the courts to rewire the legal system on issues ranging from gun control and environmental policy to police power, Indigenous land claims, and church/state relations. With rare exceptions, recent rulings have all featured innovations that pull the United States much further to the right.
But rather than enjoying their judicial triumph, many conservative pundits have adopted victim blaming, arguing that the left has brought their defeats on themselves, and that any bad consequences come from resistance to the right’s agenda.
In 2018, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, a moderate Republican, mocked CNN commentator Jeffrey Toobin for arguing that the resignation of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy meant the end of Roe v. Wade. “If Chicken Little and Cassandra had a baby, they’d name him Jeffrey Toobin,” Parker argued. “No more reproductive choice; no more equal protection for the LGBTQ community; no more fun for anybody, except Jesus and his acolytes. The effect has been an unloosing of hysteria upon the land.”
Four years later, Toobin has been amply vindicated in his prediction of the end of abortion rights (and might soon be on the extinguishing of LGBTQ rights, which he also predicted in 2018). Parker’s response? To blame the end of Roe on pro-choice protesters. As Erik Wemple reports in The Washington Post, Parker maintains that her sources were right in portraying justices like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh as “as incrementalists disinclined to undo important precedents in a single ruling. Had the ‘jackals’ of the abortion rights movement not protested at Kavanaugh’s house, Parker said, he might well have switched sides in the Dobbs case.” Again, the narrative is that the end of Roe is the fault of the people who tried to preserve Roe.
If figures on the right like Emmons and Parker are eager to engage in victim blaming, they have important allies among centrists who share their desire to bash the left. The basic argument of victim blaming—applied not to abortion but to larger relations between the left and right—appeared in Devin Gordon’s profile of Jon Stewart in The Atlantic. According to Gordon, Tucker Carlson was only radicalized after being skewered by Stewart in 2004 on the CNN show Crossfire, while Donald Trump himself was similarly enraged by President Barack Obama’s mockery during the 2011 White House Correspondence Dinner.
Perhaps what people thought they were watching—Tucker, self-immolating—was in fact the origin story of Tucker Carlson 2.0, the one who’s currently hurting America with a nimbler and far more ruthless brand of demagoguery than he was peddling two decades ago. Humiliation is a powerful motivator. In the same way that Obama’s roasting of Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner supposedly drove Trump to run for president out of spite, Stewart’s prime-time dismantling of Carlson seemed to have unleashed something in the bow-tied menace.
Simply as history, this is absurd. Carlson was a figure of the far right long before 2004. In his 1991 college yearbook, he expressed admiration for racist Senator Jesse Helms and Dan White, the homophobic assassin of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Trump’s racism has been overt at least since he called for the death penalty to be imposed on the five black and Latin teens who were framed by the police in the Central Park jogger rape case. From Gordon’s account, you wouldn’t know why Obama derided Trump.
Prior to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Trump had made a name for himself as the loudest voice of the birther movement—a racist conspiracy theory claiming that Obama was born outside the United States and thus not eligible to become president. Trump’s adoption of birtherism was an early sign of his desire to pursue the presidency, since it made him popular with the Republican base. Given that fact, it would have been cowardice on the part of Obama to have Trump in the audience in that setting and not make jokes about him. After all, part of politics is being able to defend yourself and take pot shots at the enemy.
Besides, if Carlson and Trump were humiliated by those events, they themselves trafficked before and after in humiliating their political foes.
To be clear, Gordon isn’t engaged in victim blaming as a partisan of the right, but rather as a complicit centrist enabler who is trying to discourage liberals from deriding the right. The intent here is to lower the temperature of political debate—but in a context where the right is on the rampage and the left is playing defense, Gordon is enabling the right. In an abusive situation, the enabler often buys into victim-blaming rhetoric as a way of maintaining a false objectivity between the two sides.
What’s behind the rise of this victim-blaming logic? Partially, it’s that Dobbs and other recent court decisions are indefensible. They are already producing truly vile real-world results. The recent outbreak of victim blaming is a way of deflecting responsibility, so that the people whose actions led to the current situation have some plausible deniability.
Beyond shifting blame, victim blaming is also about defeating future resistance. The right knows it’s gone too far and is provoking what might be a massive counter-movement. The goal of saying earlier resistance radicalized the right is to weaken left-wing wing opposition, to give people upset over the reactionary courts second thoughts about the wisdom of fighting back.
This is a message that appeals not just to the right but also to centrists, who value comity above all else. The Post’s Parker, a Never Trump Republican, is addressing an audience of centrists. There are plenty of middle-of-the-road voters who are nominally pro-choice but don’t want to do the messy work of protesting that will be needed: picketing outside the homes of judges, civil disobedience, and an underground railroad in anti-choice states.
There is no way to restore abortion rights without the kind of major social disruption that is the hallmark of all civil rights movements. To change the world, you have to shake the powers that be. This prospect makes the right angry—and centrists uncomfortable. Which is why the right has fully embraced victim blaming, while centrists are being courted to be their enablers.